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THE INDEX — August 14, 2009

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Jonathan Power:The Man Closest to Medvedev

Talking to Igor Yurgens is probably as close to talking with Dmitri Medvedev as one can get without interviewing the Russian president himself. His influence is regarded by those who follow the inner workings of the Kremlin as immense. By disposition a liberal academic, committed to the rule of law, he runs his own think tank which gives him the research and intellectual firepower to influence his close friend. Yurgens had something to do with clearing the path for the president to give his first on-the-record interview to the remarkably brave and independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which had four star reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down between 2001 and 2009. I recently interviewed Yurgens and we talked about Georgia, where the Russian army defeated Georgian forces that precipitated an unnecessary war last August by invading its neighbor, the pro-Russian mini-state of South Ossetia. I've long maintained that although Russia was acting within its rights in repulsing the unprovoked Georgian attack, it used a sledge hammer to kill a wasp. The Russian military used tactics that not only overwhelmed the Georgian army but created extensive destruction and civilian suffering. They seemed to be unnecessarily brutal. "Yes, maybe the Russian reaction was too heavy," replied Yurgens. "And there was no attempt at public relations before the event to explain what and why the Russians were doing. But then we always make the mistake of being too heavy handed. But if Medvedev hadn't given the order to intervene—and remember the military had worked themselves up—Medvedev would have been a lame duck president for the rest of his term." Within a couple of days of the invasions, Yurgens rushed to Washington for back-channel talks with the U.S. State Department. He told me that he "felt deceived by [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. did know a week before the invasion, because the Russians made sure that the 800 American soldiers stationed in Georgia were not in the way in case we had to intervene. Also both American and Russian intelligence could see and follow the movement of the Georgian army. So the U.S. had the opportunity to intervene and tell the Georgians not to go ahead with their planned attack on South Ossetia." "But by then within the administration, opinion, including that of [President George W.] Bush and Rice, who a month before had publicly warned the Georgian leader [Mikhail] Saakashvili not to initiate a war, had shifted in [Vice President Dick] Cheney's direction. I got this impression from Bill Burns, who I've known for a long time, the number two in the State Department and a very informed ex-ambassador to Moscow." "Cheney, in effect, undermined Bush and Rice. He knew that right-wing academics, ex-American diplomats and others, who journeyed to Georgia in the preceding weeks, had dropped hints to Saakashvili that if it came to a showdown Bush and Rice would be compelled to support the Georgians, despite their earlier warnings. Saakashvili was emboldened to do what he had long planned. He thought he could get away with it. And he thought by poking us in the eye he would strengthen his weakening position at home, where he was becoming less democratic and more ruthless by the day." Back home in Moscow, Yurgens says that Medvedev wants to heal the breach with both the European Union and America. Medvedev "likes" the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, who has assumed power "with new ideas," and thinks that if "our institutions [change] then we won't depend on the subjective," Yurgens said.

Jonathan Power: On How Not to Press the Reset Button

Precise quid pro quos are not good in marital or romantic relationships. Neither do they work well in big time politics. If made too precisely, they suggest that the other side is not to be trusted unless there is a “deal.” When there is conflict—either at home, with friends, or indeed with enemies—one needs to change the atmosphere, to restore a sense of trust so that opinions and arrangements can be freely traded. One good turn encourages, but not demands, a good turn by the other side. At the end of the Cold War, we saw such magnanimity and Americans, Russians, Europeans, and the rest of the world benefited immensely from it. Two great presidents were responsible for this—George H. W. Bush in the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. In 1991, Bush decided unilaterally to de-alert all bombers, 450 of the deadly accurate city-destroying Minuteman missiles, and missiles in ten Poseidon submarines (each with enough warheads to destroy Moscow, Leningrad, and every city in between). Gorbachev, taking the cue, deactivated 500 land-based nuclear tipped missiles and six submarines (weapons that could have reduced the most populated parts of the United States to ashes and dust). Moreover, this wasn't the cosmetic de-alerting that's talked about today. Missile silos and submarine crews actually had their launch keys taken away from them. This is why President Barack Obama (if The New York Times has got the story right) has made a big mistake in his opening move following the pressing of the now-infamous “reset button.” His letter to President Dimitri Medvedev suggesting that Washington was open to discussions on the dismantling of the anti-missile site now being constructed on Polish soil (if Russia would lean harder on Iran to halt its presumed nuclear weapons program) was misconceived. What his letter should have said is simply, “President George W. Bush initiated a policy that the United States no longer stands by. We want to reopen discussions with you that will lead to our abandonment of said project.” Full stop. Period. Then, once the reset button starts the music, the notes will start to write themselves, so long as the mood remains good.

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